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by Greg Farnum


When Richard was in art school at Wayne State University in Detroit he began collecting junk to use in his art. Eventually he realized he was more interested in the junk than in the art. Sometime thereafter his father, broken by a life of unrewarding toil at an insurance firm and three packs of cigarettes a day, died, leaving Richard with $3000 and a mother whose soothing platitudes had gradually turned to cynical wisecracks.

Richard took the three grand and the junk he had begun collecting and opened a second hand store "in a small, dingy town on the fringe of Detroit, Michigan (a large dingy town), on what was once a lovely little Main Street." With that, Michael Zadoorian's Second Hand, a novel about the struggle to find meaning amidst the detritus left behind by the great machine of the world (obsolete cities, families, things) begins in earnest.

And there are plenty of characters: old clocks, bar glasses, 1950's kitchen chairs, phonograph records, toys, games, bowling shirts monogrammed with nicknames from another era, souvenirs of all descriptions and a host of other items that Richard encounters during his daily hunt for "cool junk" through the estate liquidations, garage sales and Salvation Army stores of Greater Detroit. "Junking is my own grubby metaphor for everything," he confides, "life portrayed as the long trudge through smelly, clotted aisles on the way to what might seem like the big score, but is really more junk."

But Richard's relationship with his merchandise is not cynical or predatory; his out of date and sometimes laughable objects are windows onto an earlier time that seemed to cohere, to make sense. "Things get chipped," he says, "they fade and shrink, crumble and yellow. But these things that seem insignificant are what compose our personal histories. That's what junk is for me, finding these little spots of time, only they're things that you can hold in your hand, things that you can find everywhere. You just need to know where to look."

Cast-off goods as metaphor, it's a device that owes much to an earlier thirty-something bestseller, Nick Hornby's High Fidelity. It's pushed up to, but not beyond, what it will bear. Anyone who has ever had the task of going through their dead parents' belongings can testify to the validity of Richard's intense reactions.

Which Richard experiences for us when his mother dies and he's called on to sort and dispose of the relics of their lives and his youth. He's not alone. Theresa, an attractive young customer from his store, has by this time entered his life. She, too, is involved with cast-offs. She works at an animal shelter in order to care for the discarded cats and dogs of the city. The trouble is, only a few of these creatures can be provided with new homes while the rest must be killed. She dreams every night of the animals she has destroyed.

Sound depressing? In fact, it isn't. Second Hand is a love story, a romance without a trace of the obligatory Postmodern irony that characterizes the work of so many American writers of Zadoorian's generation. ("There is a taint of death in all irony," says Richard, commenting on the supercilious attitude of some of his customers.) True, there is loss, sadness and humiliation in Zadoorian's novel, but no more than most of us have experienced in the course of our day to day existences.

There is also the pleasure of a well-crafted, ultimately upbeat story about Richard and Theresa, two young Americans trying to piece together meaningful lives from the materials at hand.Second Hand by Michael Zadoorian, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2000.

I was born in Detroit in 1949, a fact which to me is quite significant since the 1940s have always seemed to be a time of black and white movies and urban mystery. In fact, I have numerous memories of my first year of existence (contrary to what medical science and psychology would have us believe is possible) and thus know for certain that in the 1940s everything actually was black and white – endless shades of gray, actually – and the cities did drape themselves in a cloak of mystery. Later my family moved north to a lake district (now a district of gas stations and Burger Kings -- in fact, there is currently a bill before Congress to designate this portion of Michigan as Gas Station and Burger King National Park) only to move back to the city a few years later due to economic necessity. The city was Dearborn, home of the Ford Rouge Plant and a stopping off point for the hero of L.-F. Celine’s Journey to the End of Night, as I recall. Celine would have still recognized the place when I was there. Next, I got to participate as a conscript in a vast imperialist war, one which, as I now read, was actually a noble attempt to help humanity. My experience indicated that we were helping humanity by shooting humans…which I guess is not that surprising, as many nations have helped humanity in precisely that way. Returning home, I enrolled in Oakland University and got a master’s degree in history. Having mastered history, I proceeded to master a variety of low wage, entry level jobs like apartment cleaner, soil tester and ice cream truck driver. Later, upon getting married, I settled down to steady work as a trade magazine journalist and technical writer (writing about machines). That experience hasn’t quite cured me of the desire to write stories, poems, plays, novels…my recent work includes short stories in the Italian anthology Uomini e vizi (1998), the novel The Event (Domhan Books, 1999) and a poetry collection called Now Hiring Goons (Hole in the Wall Press, 2000).


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